Sunday, September 11, 2005

Bush's Witt-less FEMA

The Nation
David Corn

Bush's Witt-less FEMA

In a perfect world--or, at least one not so imperfect--people who make the right call about important stuff would be rewarded and those who are wrong would not be. That's not how things work in Bushland. Remember those lovely medals George W. Bush handed to CIA chief George Tenet and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, even though both were responsible for tremendous miscalculations on Iraq? In recent days, there have been calls for the firing of Michael Brown, the FEMA director--who got his job because he was a college chum of George W. Bush's 2000 campaign manager. Like DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, Brown screwed the pooch, and both in recent days have issued CYA statements rather than acknowledge responsibility. Yet Bush praised his FEMA guy last week, saying, "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job."

Let's consider an obvious comparison: Michael Brown and James Lee Witt, who Bill Clinton appointed head of FEMA. As has been widely noted, before joining FEMA, Brown was a lawyer for the International Arabian Horse Association. Before Witt was tapped as FEMA chief, he had served for four years as director of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services. Bush placed a crony--Brown was also an attorney for the Oklahoma Republican Party--in charge of FEMA (and permitted the agency's disaster work to be downgraded). Clinton gave the job to a fellow with years of experience in disaster management and maintained a close connection to Witt and FEMA, which then had Cabinet-level status.

Brown, Chertoff and Bush were not prepared for this foreseen tragedy, but FEMA's lack of readiness was predicted. By Witt, it turns out. In March 2004, he testified at a hearing conducted by two House subcommittees. The issue at hand was DHS's plan to consolidate--that is, reduce the number of--FEMA's regional and field offices. Witt's comments were all-too perceptive. He practically predicted the mess to come in New Orleans. As you read his remarks--which I excerpt below--think about two things. First, disaster-management experts outside the administration were worried about FEMA long before Hurricane Katrina came howling. Second, the poor people of New Orleans might have been much better off had someone who knew about disaster relief been in charge during this tragedy. Here's a portion of Witt's testimony:

As you continue to examine DHS and its growth, I want you to know that I and many others in the emergency management community across the country are deeply concerned about the direction FEMA is headed. First, we are greatly concerned that the successful partnership that was built between local/state/federal partners and their ability to communicate, coordinate, train, prepare, and respond has been sharply eroded. Second, FEMA, having lost its status as an independent agency, is being buried beneath a massive bureaucracy whose main and seemingly only focus is fighting terrorism while an all hazards mission is getting lost in the shuffle.

I firmly believe that FEMA should be extracted from the DHS bureaucracy and reestablish it as an independent agency reporting directly to the President, but allowing for the Homeland Security Secretary to task FEMA to coordinate the Federal response following terrorist incidents. Third, the FEMA Director has lost Cabinet status and along with it the close relationship to the President and Cabinet Affairs. I believe we could not have been as responsive as we were during my tenure at FEMA had there had been several levels of Federal bureaucracy between myself and the White House. I am afraid communities across the country are starting to suffer the impact of having FEMA buried within a bureaucracy rather than functioning as a small but agile independent agency that coordinates Federal response effectively and efficiently after a disaster.

FEMA was assembled in 1979 in much the same way that the various agencies of DHS have been put together. Although the reorganization that brought the various agencies together under FEMA was on a much smaller and more manageable scale, it took our country close to 15 years to get it right. When FEMA was formed there were several cultures all being thrown together under one new roof. The dominant "top down" culture within early FEMA traced its roots to the days of civil defense. This culture was probably necessary for those types of national security oriented activities. As a State Director of Emergency Management, I was often on the receiving end of FEMA's "top down," rigid, and sometimes inflexible approach. It is for this reason that I was determined, as FEMA Director, to take the Agency in a new direction. I wanted to move towards becoming an organization where the needs of the stakeholders and employees were valued and heeded. DHS is struggling with growing pains similar to what FEMA struggled with for the first 15 years of its existence.

However, I continue to be concerned about the scope of the task that has been given to Under Secretary Hutchinson and Secretary Ridge. FEMA was an agency of 2,600 permanent employees and 4,000 disaster reservists and it took 15 years to get on the right track. The reorganization taking place with DHS is several scales above the FEMA reorganization and they are being asked to accomplish this massive effort in a world full of uncertainty regarding future terrorist activity and the certainty of future natural disasters. As you may know, I was not in favor of creating such a large Department all at once. I supported the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, but I do not think this was accomplished in the right way. I always thought we should start with the areas that needed the greatest and most immediate attention--specifically those activities involving the gathering, assimilation, and dissemination of terrorist intelligence to state and local officials. Also, I thought it made sense to engage in efforts to improve the security of our most vulnerable critical infrastructure and targeted industries. I felt that many of the pieces in place to manage the consequences of a disaster or terrorist attack were not broken and didn't need "fixing." I saw no need to reinvent the wheel on the consequence management side of emergency management--particularly when there were several other more pressing areas that needed to be addressed regarding counterterrorism efforts.

In an effort to build other Directorates within DHS that need more help, vital pieces of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Directorate--FEMA--are being moved or underfunded to prop up these other very critical areas. Programs--like the very successful Fire Grants--are being moved out of FEMA. And the Emergency Management Performance Grants (EMPG) which provide the backbone to our emergency management systems are being cut and significantly restructured in a very detrimental way. In fact some estimates suggest that the 25-percent cap on personnel costs within the EMPG could result in more than half of the country's 4,000-plus emergency managers losing their jobs. By throwing all of these disparate pieces together in the DHS stew, we have not only diluted the concentration on some of the most critical parts of our counterterrorism efforts, but we are allowing scarce resources to be directed away from consequence management. Our Nation's emergency management system has often been held up as an international model; however, this country's well-oiled emergency management infrastructure--that has been built over many years--is now in great jeopardy as DHS attempts to build capabilities in other areas of the Department.

Imagine if Witt--or anyone with such expertise--had been running FEMA in recent years. How many less deaths would there have been in New Orleans and Mississippi? That question cannot be answered. But it is clear that Bush, Chertoff and Brown let FEMA slide. And the cost for that is dead bodies floating in the dirty waters of New Orleans. Now there's a debate over what investigation will come in Katrina's wake. Senators Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman--who led the effort to create the DHS that swallowed up FEMA--announced on Tuesday that their government affairs committee would conduct hearings. Tom DeLay, though, seemed to say he was not eager to see any House committees do the same. And Bush vowed that he would look into "what went wrong" but did not endorse the creation of an independent investigation. As the Bush administration and the Republican Congress dither over this, here's a suggestion: at least one investigation should be independent of the administration, and it should be led by James Lee Witt.